Following the death of Queen Elizabeth, Bouwer van Niekerk asks that as we reflect on her life, if there any positives that we can take from it and even learn from.
"The Queen is dead. Long live the King!" This famous phrase was no doubt heard across the depths and breadths of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth shortly after the death of Queen Elizabeth II, the ceremonial head of state that occupied said position for some seven decades, and in the process became arguably the most famous woman in the world. Proclaimed initially in French – le roi est mort, vive le roi! – it was first declared upon the accession of Charles VII to the French throne immediately after the death of his father Charles VI in 1422 and arose from the law of le mort saisit le vif – the transfer of sovereignty occurs instantaneously upon the moment of death of the previous monarch. A phrase that holds significant historical meaning to a great many royalists, it leaves many (if not most) South Africans cold.
Loathed across South Africa and the continent
The reasons for its chilled reception are as obvious as they are plentiful and are almost universally shared by South Africans of all different heritages and cultures. As a symbol of one of the most prolific colonisers in history, the king or queen of England (dependent on the moment in time) has been loathed not only in South Africa but across Africa and beyond to the farthest reaches of the globe where its armies forcefully conquered and enslaved peaceful nations that meant the tiny island no harm. As is aptly pointed out by the Economic Freedom Fighters in its statement of 8 September 2022, immediately following Elizabeth II’s death, the most sacred of British institutions were built up, sustained, and lived off a brutal legacy of the dehumanisation of millions of people across the world.
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Closer to home, the English colonisers fought what has become known as the South African Wars under the banner of their royal family and in the process killed countless South Africans in concentration camps and on the battlefield across our beautiful country. The atrocities committed in the name of whomever sat on the British throne from the time their ships first set foot on our shores up until well into the twentieth century have caused many South Africans to so intensely detest the English and their royal family that that they saw it fit, even necessary, to pass this hatred down through generations. To this day, I still hear the phrase God straf Engeland (God punish England) at certain social engagements.
So why would we as South Africans ever care about the death of a nonagenarian white woman born into grotesque privilege who found it fit to on occasion to don some of the most precious stones ever mined, none of which originate from her own island, and many of which were plundered from our natural resources? Why should we even extend her the courtesy of debating whether there is anything pertaining to her life that is worth mentioning, especially to a people that over the centuries, only knew suffering and injustice under her predecessors' rule?
Better than the British
For one, I believe we can do so (can mind you, not should) because we as South African are, on the whole, a forgiving people, and we are (our history with the Brits notwithstanding) a peaceful nation. We are a nation that can say that we overcame apartheid – an atrocity that stands on equal footing with colonialisation when it comes to crimes against humanity – without reverting to war. This makes us better than the British. I do not intend this statement to be demeaning, but I will also not regret it if it is interpreted as such.
So, now that we have established that we can (and I again stress can, not should), give the dead queen the time of day to reflect on her life, are there any positives that we can take from it and even learn from?
As a twenty-one-year-old on a visit to Cape Town, the then Princess Elizabeth promised that, whether it be long or short, she would dedicate her entire life to the service of her people. This was not a political statement; she kept that promise. There are two lessons to learn from this.
Firstly, and axiomatically: keep your promises. We live in a world where prominent figures are all too often caught breaking promises. Our Public Protector is embroiled in an ugly impeachment process that partly stemmed from a judgment by the Constitutional Court that found her to be less than truthful in her dealings and investigations. We have a President who has promised to be faithful to the Constitution who is now caught up in a scandal involving the alleged theft of millions of Rands in cash, and who has failed to take the South African people into his confidence and truthfully and completely deal with very serious allegations levelled against him. Instead, he has meekly chosen to hide behind due process rather than being seen to keep his promise of upholding the rule of law and candidly responding to questions in Parliament. Keeping your promises matter because they speak to your character or, depending on your ability or failure to do so, your lack thereof.
Serve the taxpayers
Secondly, if the taxpayers sponsor your lifestyle, serve them accordingly. Elizabeth II attended countless engagements over the whole of her life up to the very end, not in furtherance of her personal ambitions, but in the service of her people. Love her or hate her, one cannot but respect the fact that she always placed her duty to the crown first, even before that as a mother to her children. She accepted that, having been born into her unique station in life, she had a responsibility that would play a significant part in determining whether there would still be a place for a British royal household in an ever-changing world. And she took that responsibility seriously. In a country where a great many people and political parties will in the next couple of months and years, vie for political, state-sponsored power, it is worthwhile to remember the example that the departed sovereign set in placing service above personal gain.
Lastly, whenever the queen during her reign was faced with criticism and even outright public animosity, she did not try and defend herself by issuing public statements wherein she tried to defend herself and blame others for the censure meted out at her. Rather, she observed the public opinion and acted in the best manner she deemed fit in the surrounding circumstances. In a country where we all too often see people in power try and defend themselves by issuing lengthy statements wherein, they either try to justify their condemned actions or blame the denunciation aimed at them on all sorts of conspiracy theories, Elizabeth II’s actions (or at times, simply inactions) over words approach was both fresh and dignified. T
hat Her Majesty was far from perfect need not be justified more than merely stating it. The flawed ruler of a deeply flawed family comprising a monarchy that many view as increasingly irrelevant, Elizabeth II will no doubt be remembered both fondly and coldly for triumphs and failures alike. Notwithstanding her standing as the head of the church of England, she was very much human. But then, so are all of us.
Her faults notwithstanding, there are lessons to be learnt from her life. Just like there are from all our lives. These lessons become apparent when we look past our worst attributes and focus on what is good in us. Let this be our lesson to all of us, from all of us.
- Bouwer van Niekerk is a Johannesburg-based attorney.
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